8 African-American Women Who Portrayed Aunt Jemima
Aunt Jemima is a very famous brand of instant mix pancakes, syrup and many other breakfast foods in United States. Currently owned by Quaker Oats Company, a subsidiary of PepsiCo was the first company to debut ready mix pancakes in 1889.
After the killing of George Floyd on June 17, 2020 and subsequent protests, Quaker Oats announced that to make progress towards racial equality we would be changing the brand name and image.
They said that they were receiving numerous complaints that Aunt Jemima character is based on the “Mammy” stereotype. It is known that the clothes of the image used and the word “Aunt” was used by the white people for their black slaves in historic times.
This was not the first time Aunt Jemima is in controversies. In 80’s Anna Julia Cooper on World’s Columbian Exposition gave an example of Aunt Jemima addressing how African American women were being exploited by white men.
It became more controversial when the company began hiring actual slave women for marketing of Aunt Jemima products. Here are 6 black women were performers and spokesperson for Aunt Jemima products.
Nancy Green (1890)
Nancy Green was the first African-American woman to portray Aunt Jemima in 1890. Born on November 17, 1834 Nancy Green was a slave in Montgomery County, Kentucky.
Davis Milling Company bought a ready mix pancake flour formula from Chris L. Rutt and Charles Underwood in 1980. They were looking for African American woman to promote their new product.
Davis Milling Company on the brink of bankruptcy, decided to risk their entire fortune on a promotional exhibition featuring Nancy Green at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. She was taken in numerous tours which includes marketing, cooking and personal appearances. She received many medals for her work during that time.
Davis Milling constructed the world’s largest flour barrel, 24 feet high and 16 feet in diameter. Doors were mounted in the side, and the interior was fitted out as a reception parlor to entertain visitors. Outside the barrel, near the front, was Nancy Green in the persona of Aunt Jemima. She cooked pancakes, sang songs, and told stories of the Old South while greeting fair visitors. She had served more than a million pancakes by the time the fair ended and more than 50,000 orders were placed for Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix from countries all over the world.
Aunt Jemima was a “mammy” type character which wears clothes just like white people slaves wearied at that time. The black and white clothes you must have seen in many Hollywood movies.
During her time as a marketer for Aunt Jemima product she also became a activist. She was one of the first African-American missionary workers.
She died on August 30, 1923, in Chicago when a car flipped over her after hitting a truck on the road. She is buried in Oak Woods Cemetery of Chicago.
Lillian Richard (1925)
After the death of Nancy Green, it was Lillian Hebert Richard was hired to promote Aunt Jemima products. This Texas girl went to Dallas at the age of 20 to become a cook. In 1925, she was contracted and hired by Quaker Oats Company as a new face for Aunt Jemima. She worked for 23 years for them until she suffered from a stroke in 1948. She returned to her hometown after the stroke and died there in 1956.
She was honored in 2012 with a Texas Historical Marker in her hometown.
Anna Robinson (1933)
In 1933 Anna Robinson made her debut as Aunt Jemima at the Chicago Century of Progress Exposition.
As Aunt Jemima, Robinson will forever be remembered in the annals of Quaker Oats history. Never to be forgotten was the day they loaded 350 pounds of Anna Robinson on the Twentieth Century Limited and sent her to New York in the custody of the Lord and Thomas Advertising Agency to pose for pictures.
An entire campaign was designed around her association with a parade of stars. She had personal appearances and posed with Hollywood celebrities at some of the most famous places, including El Morocco, “21”, the Stork Club, and the Waldorf-Astoria. Everywhere Robinson went, she was photographed making pancakes for luminaries from motion pictures, radio, and Broadway. The advertisements derived from those photography sessions were ranked among the highest read of their time.
The officials at Quaker Oats were so impressed with the advertisements using Robinson that they commissioned Haddon Sunblom, a nationally known commercial artist, to paint a portrait of her. The Aunt Jemima package was redesigned around the new likeness. Robinson stayed on the Quaker Oats Company payroll until her death in 1951.
Anna Short Harrington (1935)
Anna Short Harrington career as Aunt Jemima began in 1935 when she was discovered by Quaker Oats Company during her cooking at the New York State Fair. She appeared in numerous shows to market Aunt Jemima products and also to make pancakes. She earned a lot of money while working while working with the company. She was able to buy an new big house and to rent rooms in New York. Her house was demolished to make way for Interstate 81.
She died in Syracuse in 1955. According to the book “The Story Of Aunt Jemima”, she was very famous for cooking pancakes in New York.
Ethel Ernestine Harper (1950)
Ethel Ernestine Harper was featured as Aunt Jemima in advertising campaigns during the 1950s. She graduated from college at 17 and taught school for a while before portraying Aunt Jemima. Additionally, she starred in the theatrical productions The Hot Macado and the Negro Follies and sang with the Three Ginger Snaps while touring Europe. She died in Morristown, New Jersey, in April 1981.
Rosie Lee Moore Hall (1950)
For 17 years Rosie Lee Moore Hall captured the attention of the world in the persona of Aunt Jemima. Born in Robertson County, Texas, in 1900, Hall was a native of the community of Pin Oak, located between Hearne and Wheelock. She married Ollie Chambers at age 17 and remained in Pin Oak.
She left Hearne in her late 20s when her marriage failed, losing contact with her family for 19 years. By then she had made Oklahoma City her home and was working for Quaker Oats.
While working in the advertising department of Quaker Oats she learned of the search for a new Aunt Jemima. According to family and friends, she perfectly exemplified the trademark, which was why her round smiling face adorned Aunt Jemima products for almost two decades.
From 1950 to 1967 Hall continued the tradition started by other Aunt Jemimas and traveled the country showing off her culinary talents by making melt-in-your-mouth pancakes. She was at her best when she was cooking pancakes. And cook pancakes she did: at world’s fairs and annually at the Texas State Fair; everywhere she went, she jovially served her syrup and buckwheat cakes. During her last years at Quakers Oats, Hall told her family she was excited about a new syrup recipe she was creating.
Hall was the oldest girl of 14 children, and was always outgoing. After she began the role of Aunt Jemima, her family looked forward to her annual visit home during Christmas. They would gather at the family home and sing Christmas carols, while Hall would talk about her experiences as Aunt Jemima. Her sisters say she was perfect for the job because she liked people so much. Her family never saw any of her official demonstrations, but they were always delighted when she returned home, because she would cook her famous pancakes for them.
The last time she visited was Christmas 1966. Two months later she suffered a heart attack on her way to church and died on February 12, 1967. An elaborate funeral was held in Oklahoma City, and she was buried in the family plot in the Colony Cemetery near Wheelock, Texas.
Although she died over a quarter of a century ago, Hall had no grave marker until 1988. A special ceremony was held May 7, 1988, and her grave was declared a historical landmark.
Hall’s reign as Aunt Jemima is significant because she was the last “living” Aunt Jemima.
Aylene Lewis (1955)
Aylene Lewis portrayed Aunt Jemima at the eponymous restaurant at Disneyland, which opened in 1955. Because it was such a popular eating place at the park, it was refurbished in June 1962. In the eight years prior to the remodeling the restaurant had served pancakes to 1.6 million guests. Lewis became well known for serving pancakes to dignitaries.
Clad in her bandanna and matching skirt and shawl, she posed for pictures with many visitors to Disneyland. She received souvenir pictures and letters from all over the world, in all languages and from all races and creeds. Indian Prime Minister Nehru’s normal calm turned to animation as he posed with Lewis’s hand clasped in his. Quite a celebrity herself, she was also at ease in front of television cameras. She also developed a close relationship with Walt Disney. Lewis died in 1964, after posing as the Disneyland Aunt Jemima from 1957 to 1964.
Edith Wilson (1956)
Edith Wilson gained national notoriety as the motherly face on Aunt Jemima advertising materials. A classic blues singer from Chicago, she came from a well-educated family in Louisville.
Her performances were not limited entirely to blues, though, as she also was a recorded vaudeville performer. She often noted that her family was very supportive of her career aspirations and appeared in concerts throughout the country. She further appeared on the “Amos ’n’ Andy” and “Great Guildersleeve” radio serials during the 1940s. Her most famous movie was To Have and Have Not, starring Humphrey Bogart.
Quaker Oats capitalized on Wilson’s outgoing personality and had her portray Aunt Jemima on radio, television, and in personal appearances all over the United States from 1948 to 1966. According to Derrick Stewart-Baxter (1970), she was the first Aunt Jemima featured on TV commercials, and although she received support from her family, her appearance as Aunt Jemima on early commercials was criticized as demeaning.
Wilson died on March 30, 1981, after suffering a stroke. She lived in Chicago from the 1950s until her death.